Career ladder for managers: one is enough for the whole company

Managers are people too. They need to understand what their leadership / the company expect from them as much as individual contributors do. I’d argue this is even more important than similar clarity for individual contributors. If your management layer doesn’t know what’s expected from them and spend attention cycles guessing, how well will they lead their teams?

The good news is that you only need one manager career ladder for the whole company: it’s possible for one to work across Go To Market, Finance and Ops, and even Engineering, Product and Design 🤯. We’ve done it at Segment. The bad news for People teams is that you’ll need to get leadership across these functions to agree on the one career ladder. Good luck with that! 😅

If you’re a function leader who has multiple managers in your org, you can lead the way and create a career ladder for your managers even if your company doesn’t have one. Go ahead, be a hero! 🦸

Why you need a manager career ladder

Some people will argue that managers are more experienced than individual contributors and they should “just know what to do.” This argument is obviously wrong for the following reasons:

  • People management is a completely different skill set from any individual contributor skill set. New managers have no clue how to manage or what components “management” even consists of. You owe it to them to set them up with proper expectations!
  • Senior managers who are new to your company deserve to know what you expect from them too!
  • And even senior managers who’ve been around your company forever also deserve clarity on what behaviors the company expects them to exhibit.

There’s NO excuse to not have career ladders for everyone in the company, including all levels of managers. In the special case of executives, whom you typically can count on one or two hands, you can go even farther and create a customized outcome-based expectations contract; I’ll cover that separately. For all other managers, the career ladder spells out expected and valued behaviors and should be used in conjunction with goal setting and evaluation (e.g., OKRs).

Use the career ladder with your managers in structured check-ins and when discussing promotion criteria and timelines.

How you can create a manager career ladder

There are many ways to go about creating a manager career ladder. I’ll cover two that I’ve personally lived through: the rogue function leader making it happen, and a concerted effort from the People/HR team. My point is to show that managers don’t need to wait for HR to do it. Conversely, it makes a lot of sense for HR to run a pilot with one or two function leads vs. biting off the whole process all at once.

There came a time when my rather small team at Segment branched out enough to have four sub-teams. I was managing one directly; three sub-teams had managers of different levels. We were in need of a career ladder. As with individual career ladders, I found the task of creating one too mentally taxing to tackle by myself. My colleague Vishal Rana, our VP of Customer Success, had the same challenge given his large and growing org, so we teamed up. It took us about 10 hours from nothing to final draft that we shared with our managers.

At around the same time, our awesome HR Business Partner David was working on the manager career ladder top-down. He met with a volunteer group of managers to develop Segment’s manager expectations connected to the company values. That list, while awesome, wasn’t levelized. Luckily for us, David took on the task of marrying manager expectations with our manager ladder and, importantly, getting other function leads on board. This monumental effort resulted in the final product rolled out to all Segment managers.

What a good manager career ladder looks like

Here’s our resulting ladder:

Some notes:

  • This ladder is for managers of all functions. For an example of an individual contributor career ladder in one function, see here.
  • The ladder has only three levels because that’s how many levels of managers we had before VP.
  • You’ll notice that most of the wording in this ladder describes behaviors, not outcomes. Outcomes matter, of course, but they are extremely hard to write down into a repeatable ladder applicable to many people, situations, and functions. (It’s possible to do on one-off basis (useful for an executive’s “contract” with their boss!) This is why the desired behaviors evaluation using the career ladder needs to be supplemented with an OKR/goals review in performance evaluation and promotion decisions.
  • The ladder doesn’t and can’t list all the possible behaviors in the world that we’d want people to do or stay away from. Its job is not to present an exhaustive list of possibilities; the shorter it is, the better. We assume that things like “speak the truth” and “don’t steal from the company” are understood.
  • The nature of most of the ladder’s content is highly personal to one company at one point in time. It should be mapped to your company values and desired traits. For your career ladder, use this as inspiration but come up with your own buckets, themes and cell contents. They need to sound like you speak and reflect what’s important to you as a leader and to your team.

Good luck to you with your manager career ladder creation! Ping me if you’d like to talk through it!

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